Whipping the Post

The Washington Post put a lid on angry readers by removing a letters blog from its Web site. Now the paper's ombudsman defends her assertion that crooked lobbyist Jack Abramoff "directed" money to Democrats.

Published January 22, 2006 12:27AM (EST)

"I was imprecise," Deborah Howell, the Washington Post's ombudsman, says in an interview Friday afternoon. "It was a mistake. I don't consider it a huge mistake, but it was a mistake, and I'll correct it."

Howell is referring to a comment she made in her column on Jan. 15 that the lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who has pleaded guilty to corruption charges, gave money to Democrats as well as Republicans. The column spawned a storm of hate mail to Howell. Readers insisted her assertion supports the Republican spin of the scandal -- that Democrats were as deeply in bed with the disgraced lobbyist as Republicans.

On Thursday morning, under an avalance of angry letters, Howell responded on the paper's Web site that what she should have said was Abramoff "directed" money to both parties. Which only incited a new wave of anger. One reader fired back: "As others have stated, there is NO EVIDENCE that Abramoff 'directed' tribes to donate to Democrats. None." Another one said: "Please stop with these weak justifications of your reprinting of GOP spin points."

By Thursday afternoon, the tide of reader hate had grown so strong -- and, according to the Post, so vile -- that Jim Brady, who edits the paper's Web site, decided to shut down the commenting feature on post.blog, a Web page that the Post created as an open forum for readers to express their opinions about the newspaper.

Speaking to Salon from her office at the Post late on Friday, Howell says she intends to set the record straight in a column appearing in Sunday's paper. Her story is that while the Abramoff scandal isn't totally bipartisan, the paper has uncovered documents that show that Abramoff told his Indian tribe clients to donate to Republican as well as Democratic lawmakers.

Howell says she stands by the Washington Post's reporting, which shows that Abramoff sent his clients lists of lawmakers whom they ought to give money to; these lists included the names of Democrats. As she noted on post.blog on Thursday, one such list can be seen on the Post Web site here. It shows a document that Abramoff sent to the Louisiana Coushatta tribe, telling them to write checks to organizations and lawmakers on both sides of the political spectrum.

What Howell doesn't address, though, and what many readers have pointed out, is that while it may be true that Abramoff told his clients to give money to some Democrats, and it may be true that some of these clients did in fact donate to Democrats, this chain of events doesn't show that Abramoff exerted any influence over these Democrats. In fact, other news outlets have reported that after Abramoff signed on to lobby for specific tribes, their contributions to Democrats fell. At the very least, this indicates that while Abramoff's tribes may have given money to Democrats, it was Republican lawmakers he was pressing them to cultivate.

To begin with, it's not clear the Indian tribes donated to Democrats just because Abramoff told them to -- the tribes may have been meaning to donate to key Democrats anyway. For instance, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, a Democrat from Rhode Island, who collected $128,000 from Abramoff's tribal clients, maintains that the tribes gave him their money because he's been good to tribes. In 1997, Kennedy co-founded the Congressional Native American Caucus, and he has a personal friendship with Phillip Martin, chief of the Mississippi Choctaw tribe, as his spokesman told the Post in June. In addition, even if Abramoff did "direct" this money to Democrats, as Howell wrote, nobody can say that the Democrats who got money from these tribes knew that the money was being orchestrated by the lobbyist. Several Democrats say they had no idea Abramoff was behind the money -- which is plausible, since Abramoff was well known in D.C. for being a Republican. Why would Democrats have reason to assume that he was sending money their way?

Moreover, as Bloomberg news has reported, the share of Abramoff's tribal clients' money that went to Democrats actually fell after he began working with them. Before Abramoff began representing the Saginaw Chippewas, for example, the tribe gave $158,000 to Republicans and $279,000 to Democrats. But in the Abramoff years, the same tribe gave $500,500 to Republicans and $277,210 to Democrats.

Jamison Foser, a senior advisor to the lefty press watchdog group Media Matters for America, which has been one of Howell's persistent critics, says that he would like Howell to clear the record in a more thorough way. Howell should not only say she was wrong in stating that Abramoff personally gave money to Democrats -- she should also give readers the "fuller picture" behind Abramoff's dealings with both parties. Even if the Post has previously reported that Abramoff directed his clients to send money to Democrats, Howell ought to "address the ways the story has been covered by her newspaper," including pointing out, as Bloomberg did, that his tribes didn't shower money on Democrats after he started working with them.

But asked if she'd show readers this "fuller picture," Howell says it's not her duty to delve into the substance of the debate over whether Abramoff did or did not influence Democrats. That's for reporters at the Post to do, she says. Leonard Downie Jr., the Washington Post's executive editor, agrees with this assessment. Downie stresses he is not Howell's boss. As ombudsman, she works independently of the paper's hierarchy. And he says that if readers look at the Post's "voluminous" stories on the Abramoff matter, they'll see a very thorough, full picture of the lobbyist's dealings with both Democrats and Republicans, and it's not Howell's place to give readers that story.

Referring to groups like Media Matters, Downie says, "You're talking about interest groups that form around media criticism -- they have points of view they are seeking to have media respond to, but she [Howell] will not always call it the way they see them."

Downie adds that he's edited much of the paper's Abramoff coverage, and is consequently quite familiar with the scandal. He believes that Howell's version of the story -- that Abramoff directed his clients to give money to Democrats -- is correct. "Knowing the facts," he says, "I believe her response sets the record quite straight." Downie also says he doesn't understand why people on the left are criticizing the Post, since, in his view, the paper's reporting brought this whole scandal into being. "I'm kind of baffled by people who say that we're protecting Republicans, when it's our reporting that brought this to light. If it wasn't for Sue Schmidt" -- the Post's lead reporter on the Abramoff story -- "nobody would have heard of Abramoff and he wouldn't have pleaded guilty to anything. It's like Watergate. For a year we were the only ones reporting on this. The entire scandal is due to the Washington Post's reporting."

Many critics accuse the Post of shutting down its comments site because it couldn't stand any more criticism directed its way; the paper, these people said, didn't like that readers were pointing out flaws in its Abramoff coverage in comments on the Washington Post site. Brady has denied this claim. In an online chat with readers on the site today, Brady asked, "How has The Post 'silenced its critics'? We're having a discussion right now in which -- believe me -- I can assure you there are more critics than supporters. We shut down comments on one blog on a site than has 30. You can e-mail or snail mail letters to the editor. Deborah's e-mail is available on the site. There are plenty of avenues to critique what happens at the newspaper or web site. We don't have an obligation to keep every one of those avenues open if we run into problems like we did yesterday."

Foser is not convinced. He says Howell has habitually been slow to respond to critics; her column went up Sunday, but she waited until Thursday to post a response on the Web. And when she did so, she wasn't nearly as apologetic as she should have been, Foser says. "She failed to clearly and simply say she got it wrong the first time, which she did," Foser says. Rather than admit being wrong, the tone of her piece suggested she was dismissing her critics.

Foser says that this isn't the first time that Howell has ignored her critics. Indeed, ever since she took up her post in November, Howell has become the object, rather than an arbiter, of intense reader criticism. On a number of subjects -- from the alleged partisanship of Dan Froomkin, a columnist for the Post's Web site, to the matter of whether the Post should conduct a poll on impeaching President Bush -- Howell has left a trail of angry readers in her wake. Foser says that much of the anger directed toward her is well-deserved. "At times, she has oversimplified some of the complaints raised about the Post's coverage," he says, and she has been "too dismissive" about points raised by readers.

Howell says it's "simply not true" that she's ignored her critics, including Media Matters, which routinely encourages people on the left to go after media it considers biased. Howell points to a recent run-in with the site to show that she has paid attention to what people say about her.

That fight started earlier this month, when Howell posted a message on an internal Washington Post weblog dismissing a Media Matters complaint about a Washington Post story on the Bush wiretapping plan. In the weblog, Howell called Media Matters' complaint "weak." Media Matters responded by saying Howell "endorses [the] practice of printing misleading ... Bush administration claims without rebuttal." Howell responded to the site in an e-mail, saying, "I have not endorsed printing misleading or false claims..... Please take that misleading and false headline off your site." Media Matters did not remove the headline from its site; instead, it attacked Howell further.

This caused Howell to post one final thought about her run-in with Media Matters on an internal Post message board: "The ... lesson is that I replied to mediamatters.org last week that I thought I had been misrepresented. That's just brought another attack. From now on, I don't reply."

On Friday, Howell says that it was her critics' style, rather than her own, that deserved criticism. "If you're on the other end of thousands of e-mails that are nasty, profane, sexual and obscene, it does color your view of what's out there." She adds: "I made a mistake. I've corrected it in my column, and on the Web. But I don't think that gives you license to make vicious personal and obscene attacks on people."

Downie concurred: "What I find shocking," he says, "is the kind of personal and violent -- violent in language -- attacks on her, using language that I cannot believe people would be using in a public space." Downie, who did not have any hand in Brady's decision to shut down comments on the Post blog, says he thought doing so was a "reasonable" thing if the site was being overwhelmed by obscene comments. Howell says she didn't ask the paper to pull the comments.

The Post has deleted the letters it says were most uncivil. Many of the ones that it did allow on the site -- all of which it deleted on Thursday afternoon, but then reposted on Friday -- were quite critical of Howell, some even harsh, some mean. But there were many that raised good points. A reader named Nicholas Mycroft wrote: "Let us grant that some of Abramoff's clients gave money to Democrats on his advice. That is not news. It is lobbying. Happens every day. Is there evidence of illegal activity in re that money? Of quid pro quo involving Democrats? That would be news. There certainly isn't any such evidence in what you have shown us so far. Nor has anyone else brought forth such evidence. So the question then becomes: if it isn't news, why are you reporting it? Why are you repeating it? Why are you insinuating that Democrats will eventually be found 'in the first tier' of people being investigated without producing any evidence that this is true?"

Foser acknowledges that some people responding to Howell's post this week may have crossed the line of civility. But, referring to the more sophisticated points directed at Howell, he adds, "It does seem they threw the baby out with the bathwater." Many of the comments "by and large did address the substance of what Howell had said," Foser notes. "I hope in the future both the Post and the readers can approach things in a little more calm and open way."

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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